As the AFC playoff pack heads into December, the fifth-seeded Bengals are currently the top Wild Card team and hope heading for home is one of the intangibles that puts them over the top after Sunday's 41-10 rout of the Steelers came in the din of 63,238 at Paul Brown Stadium.
Of the top dozen teams in the scramble for seven spots, only the 7-4 Bengals and Bills have four home games left in the remaining six games. Buffalo (7-4) is seeded a spot below Cincinnati at No. 6, based on the Bengals' 5-2 AFC record as players and head coach Zac Taylor are calling for more of the same at Sunday's 1 p.m. PBS game against the seventh-seeded 6-5 Chargers.
Two of the teams ahead of the Bengals, the 8-3 Ravens and the 7-4 Chiefs, are also headed to PBS on Dec. 26 and Jan. 2, respectively. The 49ers, currently 6-5 as the NFC's sixth seed, are in town next week on Dec. 12.
"It's a different type of juice," said cornerback Chidobe Awuzie in Monday's media Zoom call. "On defense the crowd is so noisy. That's what we love. False starts, illegal formations. I think they know how much it impacts us. It really does help a lot in the momentum of the game."
Taylor comes into December with all the playoff elements bubbling. In the last two weeks running back Joe Mixon has pounded it 58 times for 288 yards while the defense has allowed just two touchdowns. Now add the age-old home-field advantage.
"For me, we need the energy of this crowd," said Taylor after the Bengals put up their most points on Pittsburgh in 32 years. "These people pay good money to watch us play, and we need to win it at home. It's fun to win on the road and go shut up some other crowds, but for us, our fans need to be rewarded. They've supported us through some really difficult times, so we need to go put a winner out there that they can cheer on and be proud of."
The Bengals, a game behind the first-place Ravens, are stalking their first AFC North title under Taylor and quarterback Joe Burrow with a 3-1 division record. Tickets are still available for Sunday's matchup pitting the top two quarterbacks of the 2020 draft class.
Mixon and the Chargers' Austin Ekeler are two of the top backs in the league but it could be an air show reminiscent of the 2006 playoff stretch at PBS when the Chargers' Philip Rivers staged a 42-point second half to beat Carson Palmer's 440 yards, 49-41.
Burrow, the overall No. 1 pick, is the AFC's leading passer as the only one with a triple digit passer rating. Herbert, the sixth pick, has thrown 55 touchdown passes in 26 games, including 24 this season. The Bengals coached Herbert at the Senior Bowl three months before the draft and while they were extremely impressed they went with the Heisman Trophy winner Burrow.
"It was more about Joe Burrow and less about the other guys," Taylor said. "Certainly if Joe Burrow hadn't been there, Justin Herbert would have been a great selection because he's a tremendous player. He impressed us in every area. And obviously he's done a really good job with Los Angeles."
Herbert is 5-7 on the road, Burrow is 5-4 at PBS and had seemingly won his debut last year against these Chargers when his touchdown pass to A.J. Green with seven seconds left was negated on an offensive pass interference call. While Herbert watched, Tyrod Taylor got the win before Herbert replaced him a few weeks later and went on to win the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year while Burrow missed the last seven games.
The '20 opener was played in front of 0.0 fans. Not Sunday.
"To send a divisional rival home with a loss and let our fans enjoy that, that's important to us," Taylor said of the conquest of the Steelers. "It's important for us as players and coaches to get this win and feel it in the locker room, it's just as important for our fan base to feel this and get to enjoy this from week to week."
Awuzie and his defense, back to 13th in the NFL rankings, including a stingy fourth against the run, is looking to another big crowd to match another big game.
"We're always talking about momentum. Especially in home games," Awuzie said. "Once we have it, keep it, don't give it away. And just keep pounding, pounding. Last week was a great example of the crowd being so involved. It was cold. I didn't think it was going to be that packed. But it was a great turnout and they were really loud. It was a great experience for us. It's always going to be a great experience when the fans come put like that."